Thursday, May 27, 2010

Marie Antoinette

Author: Antonia Fraser
Publication Date: 2001
Length: 458 not counting Index and Bibliography
Cost: $35.00 for the hardcover, although I am sure that there is a paperback edition out by now that is probably more modestly priced
Where Did I Hear About It: Browsing through the library stacks

The Backstory

Marie Antoinette invokes a lot of different images, and it would be a rare case to find someone who hasn't heard of this many-times-villianized Queen of France. She was born in Vienna in 1755 to Emperor Francis I and Empress Maria Theresa of the Holy Roman Empire. After a bout of smallpox ravaged the royal family, Marie Antoinette became the choice of the royal Bourbon house of France for the French heir (traditionally termed the "Dauphin"), Louis Auguste. She was married to Louis by proxy in 1770, and later, made the long trek to France to meet her husband. As Marie was meant to symbolize an alliance between Austria and France, her reception by the court in France was naturally mixed.

Louis Auguste's grandfather, Louis XV, died in 1774 of smallpox, and Louis Auguste became Louis XVI. Marital problems plagued the royal couple during the first years of their marriage. There is good reason to suppose that the marriage was not consummated for close to 7 years, putting the future of the French royal family in danger and making the specter of annulment a very real possibility for Marie. The problem was exacerbated by Louis XVI's brother, the Comte d'Artois, who fathered a son in 1775--the first family offspring of the next generation, and therefore, the heir to the French throne. In 1777, Marie's older brother, Emperor Joseph (her father had since died), paid a visit to the royal couple, and, after a man-to-man pep talk, the marriage was consummated and regular sexual relations commenced. The result would be four children, Marie Therese (1778), Louis Joseph (1781), Louis Charles (1785), and Sophie Helene Beatrice (1786). Louis Joseph would die of what was probably spinal tuberculosis in 1789, and Sophie only lived a year after her birth.

Marie wasn't popular with the French for the majority of her reign as Queen. She was frequently satirized in comics, and the progression of their content is very asymptomatic of how the public felt about her. Early on, Louis XVI's rumored "impotence" was featured, and later, Marie's attempts to find sexual satisfaction with others. This transformed into comics that claimed she was romantically involved with many people close to her, including her brothers-in-law and her close female friends. Later, she was the scapegoat for the conspicuous consumption of the untaxed nobility--and this was the most dangerous charge. Two wars--the Seven Years War (also known as the French and Indian War in the US, lasting from 1754 to 1763) and the American Revolution had dramatically increased France's debt, causing rampant inflation and devastating poverty. The court, led by Louis XVI and Marie, continued on as usual, purchasing expensive properties and enjoying a wide range of luxury goods while the country suffered.

In 1789, the national unrest came to a head. The "Third Estate"--a legislative body made up of people who would have been considered of the "common" variety--declared itself a National Assembly with wide-reaching legislative powers. Louis XVI was a figure who lacked the definitive nature of his forefathers, and therefore, he could do little to stop the progression that followed. The National Assembly began with the introduction of a Constitutional Monarchy, but gradually, the king and his family were boxed in by an increasingly hostile public. They were eventually moved from the royal palace at the Tullieries to prison, where they were interrogated. Louis XVI was declared in violation of the laws of the new state, and he was killed by the guillotine in 1793. Marie Antoinette, having lost her royal title, was herself executed 10 months later.

Marie Antoinette is typically portrayed as living in excessive luxury, completely oblivious to the suffering of the poor. She is attributed with the phrase "Let them eat cake" in response to the assertion that the people were without bread.

What About the Book?

If all you're after is a good overview of her life, then, you will not be disappointed here. This was admittedly what I was after--I knew little about the events of Marie Antoinette's life before I read this book. However, if you're expecting more, you will be disappointed. The book lacks substance and the author's connection with the material. You get the sense that Antonia Fraser just decided one day to write about Marie Antoinette because she could--not because she was fascinated by the subject or determined to learn and write about something new.

There is very little analysis of the sources, which for some is a boon because the biography forms a narrative that flows very naturally. There is the occasional historical note, accented by a star next to terms or people in various places, but this is really the end of any strong evaluation of the available sources about Marie's life. Fraser does make some attempts, but they do not go very far. For example, she does lightly discuss the possibility that Marie Antoinette had an affair with Count Fersen, a Swedish family friend and soldier, and although Fraser seems convinced that the affair took place, the evidence she presents actually implies the opposite was true, of which Fraser is unaware. Her interests are also obvious, but this affects the balance of the text. Fraser is very interested in Marie Antoinette's life at court before the French Revolution, but the Revolution is treated more briefly than perhaps it should have been in the narrative. In addition, the Epilogue is a disappointment. It doesn't tie the biography together, and instead, treats some events and people heavily and others, not at all (Marie's daughter is discussed at length, while her son, who died very controversially in 1795, is featured in about a paragraph).

Finally, Fraser, in attempt to deliver a good story, fails to see beyond what the sources literally tell her about Marie and her life. Although it is only appropriate to be sympathetic to Marie and her family, and the horrible fate most of them met, Fraser lets this distort some very important fundamentals about Marie and the beginning of the French Revolution. Marie was a part of a culture of nobility that lived only to please itself. Of course, this culture included countless other people, too, but that doesn't negate her involvement as one half of its center. She was entirely oblivious to the suffering of the people, and this was her one major flaw--a flaw acquired by a lifetime spent in royal comfort and ease. She certainly didn't do anything to directly hurt the people, but, while she and others like her were able to run up millions of livres of debt to buy fine things, hundreds of thousands of other people in her realm couldn't buy a loaf of bread to feed themselves. Even when the French Revolution began, Louis XVI and Marie were unable to shed the trappings of wealth and the court ceremony in favor of providing something for the people. Had they done so, the outcome may have been very different. In being such a great fan of Marie, Fraser really misses this point, and I think if she had grasped it, the book would have gained the extra depth it obviously lacks.

Rating: 5--it's enjoyable, but you won't walk away being "wowed"
Buy It or Borrow It: I'm not sure I'd really put in a vote for reading it at all. Certainly don't buy it unless you find it in a used bookstore, in paperback form, for $5 or less. If you don't know anything about the period or about Marie, like me, borrowing it and reading it is worth your time if you're suddenly hit with an interest in this topic. However, don't expect more than the story of her life--no major revelations here.

1 comment:

Kittie Howard said...

Pilgrimchick, I read this book and couldn't agree more with your review and after-comments. Fraser is someone I read for the overall historical picture but isn't a writer who elicits warmth, ie, she follows a set formula. And sorry I haven't stopped by sooner but had a bit of hand surgery. All's well going to read your review of Mary that gang.